This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of World Gaming magazine.
We all love stories of high stakes gambling – and there can be no higher stake than that of our own lives or bodies. History is littered with wonderful tales of people risking life and limb for the sake of a wager. Some of them are merely the slightly disturbed imaginings of poets or authors but sometimes these tales have more than a little truth to them.
The father of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, once said, “Life is impoverished and loses in interest when the highest stake in the game of living, life itself, may not be risked.”
There are indeed many gamblers who would agree. In 18th and 19th century France there flourished a form of early life insurance called “tontine”. A group of gentlemen – ladies were seldom involved in this mutual wager – met in a lawyer’s office and drew up an agreement, through which each deposited a certain amount of money. The sole surviving gentleman who a number of years later had eventually outlived all the others would collect the entire amount, with interest, and use it to fund his golden years. One wonders why modern-day gamblers never make this bet?
Some very morbid wagers and lotteries feature in movies and in literature. In the first Die Hard film, when Bruce Willis’ character is fighting for his life against terrorists high up in a skyscraper, he makes mobile phone contact with a police officer on the ground below and the following conversation takes place:
Police Officer: “You know, we’ve got a pool going on you.”
Bruce Willis: “What kind of odds am I getting?”
Police Officer: “You don’t want to know.”
Bruce Willis: “Put me down for 20, I’m good for it.”
In the very entertaining short story Man from the South by author Roald Dahl, two persons are drawn into a frightening bet with each other. The bet concerns whether one of them can fire up his cigarette lighter 10 times in a row, without it once failing. The stakes are high – if he can do it, he will win the other person’s luxury Cadillac, but if he loses the other will cut off the little finger of his left hand. To ensure there is no backing down, the owner of the lighter has his left hand tied to a table, while the other has a very sharp knife ready to chop should the lighter fail on its quest. Dahl manages to conjure up a truly tense, spine-tingling atmosphere in his well-written short story; but who wins the bet? You’ll have to read it to find out!
Another perhaps even scarier short story is The Lottery by author Shirley Jackson. It is set in a small, nameless rural village, where the inhabitants gather in the square for the important annual event: the lottery. First a family will be chosen, then one member of that family chosen. Jackson, with calculated manipulative skill, slowly changes the atmosphere in her short story from pastoral idyll to one of outright terror as it dawns on the reader that whoever “wins” the lottery will in fact be a ritual human sacrifice in order to appease the powers that be and to obtain a good harvest from the coming crop.
One real-life gambling character who literally put his life on the line for a bet was Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston, the 1972 world champion of poker. He entered into the most dangerous wager of his career when in that same year – at the age of 44 – he bet fellow gambler Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder that he could survive a 46 kilometre rafting trip past the falls and cascades along a very treacherous stretch of the Salmon River in Idaho, known as “The River of No Return”. Not only that, Preston would do it in the winter, in sub-zero temperatures and with the river full of ice floes! Despite Preston taking along his buddy Jere Chapman and having had special wetsuits manufactured for them, they came very close to being killed on several occasions during the wild trip from 19 to 22 November.
“I would not do it again for all the money in the world,” commented an unusually humble Amarillo Slim afterwards when he collected on the wager. “It was the first bet ever when I put my own life into the pot.” It’s certainly something to keep in mind when next you contemplate playing for high stakes. Look out for more dangerous and bizarre wagers in upcoming issues of WGM.